When Vesuvius erupted in AD79, refugees from Herculaneum took refuge in boathouses build into the city wall, awaiting rescue from the sea.  They waited in vain.  Their bodies were buried, huddled together, beneath 30 metres of fallen ash to be discovered nearly two thousand years later.  One cannot but be moved on seeing these many skeletons in arch after arch in the disinterred ruins: bearing witness to their unfolding terror, hope and despair.


I found myself unable to draw here, standing jostling to look with other tourists.  However long ago, these were people deserving of respect and reflection.

I have in mind a piece of art distorting scale and perspective to draw together those who died awaiting rescue, the ruins, the weight of ash and the modern town perched above.  Behind it all sits the volcano.  To this end, here are the first very small fast sketches, drawn from my photographs taken in October.


three small sketches

Two of these sketches were done in the café at the swimming pool while my kids had lessons.  They were drawn in my smallest pocket sized notebook in conte crayon and grey brushpen.  I realised I had covered the table with pigmented dust and mopped it up with spilt tea.


They were inspired by photographs I had taken in Pompeii and archival photographs of the last eruption of Vesuvius in 1943.


Some weeks before we went on holiday to see Pompeii, I chanced to see an man in his 90s and it came out in conversation that the reason his skin was so prone to cancer in old age was it had been chronically exposed to sun working outdoors in Italy as a Royal Engineer.  What was that like, I asked.  It was great he said, we blew things up.  He found himself on the beach near Naples when Vesuvius erupted, the ground shaking beneath his feet and ash dropping on them.  What did you do, I asked.  We just stayed there, he said, the army didn’t really know what to do.  This is corroborated in the archival accounts on line.  The Allies were gradually winning the war and pushing up through Italy but were a bit nonplussed by a volcano erupting.


When I was a teenager, my mother’s partner, then the age I am now, had spent his youth driving a tank through Italy in that same campaign.  He had clearly fallen in love with Italy, its women and wine. He went on to learn the language and imported Italian wine and lingerie for a living.  From him I learned to love crisp dry Prosecco and that not all right wing anarchic Tories are bad.




Seeing, imagining, drawing



In the columned quadrangle behind Pompeii’s small theatre had been placed three bronze sculptures by the late Polish artist, Igor Mitoraj.  He drew on classical sources for his bold structures, typically fractured and fragmented to suggest the ephemeral nature of all we build.  Here, Teseo screpolato (Cracked Theseus) is shown against the remains of walls hit not only by Vesuvius but much later by Allied bombing.

I have scraped conte crayon over heavily textured stiff paper then used Faber and Castell cool grey brush pens to deepen the tones on the metal surface and brickwork.


My daughter worked on smoother cartridge paper and gained greater depth of colour from the conte crayons.  I love the interlocking shapes which build the tones of the bronze face.



Seeing, imagining, drawing


Herculaneum was hit by waves of superheated gas and dust moving faster than an express train before being buried in 15-30 metres of ash.  It was forgotten.  Much later a new town was renamed Ercolano, in honour of the ruins discovered beneath its foundations.

We sat in front of the baths, looking across the columns which once lined the ancient exercise yard.  I had wanted to show the current multi-story buildings, decked out with drying washing, perching small and uncertain above the steep cliff of the excavations and the walls of the dwellings the volcano destroyed.  I misjudged the scale and found no space for the modern buildings above the grey border wall.


My daughter has written cryptically about her sketch, done at the same time: “I was thinking at the time that I will do it a little different from my other drawings”.



Seeing, imagining, drawing


My nine year old daughter and I sat together in the evening sunshine, looking down Via della Scuole to Pompeii’s forum, set against the overwhelming backdrop of Vesuvius’ crater.  We shared the same view and the same materials, coloured ink in fountain pens, conte crayons and cool grey Faber Castell brush pens.  These last are a new addition to my field kit: they build on the crayon pigment scattered across the textured paper, solidifying it as blocks of solid tone.

How differently we perceived the scene and reconstructed this on the paper, integrating the different elements, light, volcano, walls, pavements and road.  The differences stem in part from learned techniques and in part learned norms; the use of perspective falling into both categories.  Faced with representing four dimensions on a rectangular page, one of us drew the kerbs of the paved highway as converging lines, the other switched their direction to retain their essential parallel geometry.